That’s been the storyline throughout the Paul Rhoads era, which came to a seemingly proper end last week when Rhoads was scheduled to be dismissed at the end of the season. The Cyclones, in their typical style, threatened many foes, but could never quite close out games in losses such as the 35-31 defeat to Oklahoma State and the 38-35 road loss at Kansas State.
That latest setback was said not to have been the deciding factor in Rhoads’ firing, as noted in the above video, but it was just the latest in a string of like games. Likely the greatest upset during Rhoads’ tenure was the 37-31 double overtime shocker against then-No. 2 Oklahoma State in 2011. In all, ISU went to just three bowl game sin seven years under Rhoads, and will finish no better than 3-9 in his last three seasons without a win in Morgantown.
It begs the question: Will the Cyclones find themselves motivated, or downtrodden and simply trying to finish the string in a somewhat melancholy fashion? Will the firing provide extra motivation, if not incentive, or will it simply serve as the bitter end to the seven-year tenure with one winning season, none over the final eight?
The guess is here the emotional pendulum swings wildly. Give Iowa State an opportunity to stay in the game, and like the triple overtime win in Morgantown two years ago, the Cyclones starting believing and get stronger. Get up big early, and the group is likely to quit and turn it into a spectator sport.
Here’s the primary concern for West Virginia: Iowa State has some talent, and the ability to piece together quality sections of play. This isn’t Kansas, and ISU is likely better than K-State this year as well. It proved its worth against a subpar Texas team in a 24-0 mashing, and it hung in with Oklahoma State and now No. 4 Iowa.
The common theme in all those games? The ability to run the football. Iowa State wants to keep control of the game by controlling the pace of play and the clock, especially against teams like Baylor and TCU. That also largely applies to West Virginia, though the Mountaineers don’t throw it as well as the Bears and Frogs. ISU rushed for 249 yards, three touchdowns and a 6.6 yards per carry average against OSU and 238 yards, two scores and a 5.4 yards per carry average against Kansas State.
Against Texas? A solid 238 yards, 4.4 yards per carry, with two touchdowns. In blowouts like the one against Oklahoma, the stats were more along the lines of 260 yards passing for backup-turned-starting quarterback Joel Lanning, yet just 114 yards on 38 carries in the running game. And this is where West Virginia can make its proverbial hay. The Mountaineers are solid against the run. Tony Gibson’s group tackles fairly well, fits up gaps in a disciplined fashion and, as a corollary to the gap fits, can also quickly make needed changes because of its experience.
The spur and bandit slots allow for aggressive run play, and help the ‘backers in attacking gaps while knowing there are layers of tacklers behind them. The hybrid slots can realign and be reassigned to mix and match various sets, from Texas’ power to the prototypical spread. But the best part of Gibson’s defense this season is how fundamentally sound and gap controlled it has been. Teams simply can’t find much room to run for long, and that’s forced them into throwing in undesired downs and distances, where the blitz packages can be more readily utilized.
Iowa State used the 11 personnel grouping (1 RB, 1TE, 3 WR) and the 20 (2 RBs, 0 TE, 3 WR) as base formations, and will morph from that into more power or passing, pending need. This isn’t anything WVU hasn’t seen time and again, but it will need to control the interior of the line of scrimmage effectively, and be able to battle past the lead blocker in the backfield and/or extra gap with the addition of the TE while accounting for a solid tailback in Mike Warren.
The redshirt freshman has good feet and vision, and will keep churning ahead after contact. Warren has racked up 1,265 yards and a 6.1 yards per carry average with five touchdowns while being helped by a stout offensive front. ISU starts five seniors and a sophomore when counting tight end Ben Boesen – who splits time with Justin Chandler – and the front absolutely dominated Texas, literally getting pushed back two and three yards on the snap, while the lead blocker sealed the edge. The challenge for West Virginia will be its gap responsibilities, and then again plugging the middle and forcing the Cyclones to the outside, where there is speed and added help in KJ Dillon and Jarrod Harper. Proper leverage will be key here, though that’s something WVU has typically done well.
Quarterback Joel Lanning is the next best statistical runner, and the 6-2 sophomore has tallied 343 yards and four scores in addition to completing 90-of-159 passes for 1,084 yards and 10 TDs against two interceptions. Lanning took the job from incumbent Sam Richardson when ISU was down 35-0 in the second quarter of the Baylor game, and started the next week at home versus Texas. That was when Rhoads also demoted then-coordinator Mark Mangino, replacing him with Todd Sturdy, who was in charge of the passing game.
The offense was tweaked, but one can’t truly change schemes in the midst of the season. Lanning, however, has performed well, and protected the football while relying on Warren and dangerous receiver Allen Lazard, who has 51 catches for 734 yards and six touchdowns. Add in Quenton Bundrage and three others with at least 24 catches, and Iowa State has weapons at wideout. Lazard (6-5, 223 pounds) is the big threat, literally and figuratively, and could hurt a Mountaineer secondary which has been challenged by taller wideouts with a penchant for winning the 50-50 ball.
Keep an eye on Iowa State’s run game and whether it’s trying to test the middle, or rely upon Warren’s speed, cutability and vision to try and get outside. The first guess here is Rhoads would like to test his line’s mettle against the Mountaineers’ front, and run as much power off tackle as he can. If that’s foiled, then he’ll take a look at the exterior and trying to get wide, or spreading out the defense with a fourth receiver and going to a one-back look. Take a look at which tactic ISU attempts early in the game, and whether the formations are with one back, two backs, or a back and tight end, then watch the flow of the plays. Are the up the middle – and if so how is West Virginia’s three-man front holding up against a sizeable, experienced unit – or does Iowa State want to try and use speed (which is a mistake, it reads here).
Also check and see how Gibson chooses to defend Lazard down the field. Does he keep a safety over the top for help or, with Daryl Worley playing his best football of late, let the cover corner try and match Lazard. The guess here is Lazard, pending situation, gets some man early until Iowa State proves it can throw vertically.
On the flip side, WVU’s offense will be facing a typical 4-3 look, and one that most teams have found success with. It’ll be interesting, with an easier look to decipher, if Skyler Howard is able to generate more offense with the intermediate passing game. ISU doesn’t try and fool teams; it simply plays solidly, tackles well and executes the fundamentals. There should availabilities for the running game, which will find at least some success, and areas to exploit in the intermediate zones. Whether West Virginia wants to take those, or try and hit the comeback and vertical patterns on the outside will be an aspect to view.
This Iowa State team does nothing poorly, but nothing truly exceptionally either. The match on this side of the ball goes to the team which blocks/gets of blocks and runs/stops the run best.
There could be problems for West Virginia on special teams, though, as Iowa State’s units are very good. ISU’s punt return team is the best in the Big 12 at 17.5 yards per, and the Cyclones lead the league in kickoff coverage as well, even a bit better than West Virginia’s very solid coverage teams. Placekicker Cole Netten has made 12-of-17 field goal attempts this season and 35 of 36 PATs. Netten has made his lone attempt from 50-plus yards (51), and is four of six from 40-49 yards. The edge here goes to the Cyclones.